Monthly Archives: March 2015

Book review: What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? (Neil F. Comins 1993)

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is a book that asks just that– what would Earth be like if the ancient collision that led to our present-day moon never happened and the Earth had no moon? Comins, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Maine, also asks what if the moon was closer, what if the Earth was smaller, what if the Earth was tilted like Uranus, among other questions.

This book is a must-have for science fiction writers interested in writing about other planets. Comins follows through on his initial questions in a way that science fiction enthusiasts will appreciate. If the moon didn’t exist, the moon’s tidal pull wouldn’t exist. Due to the lack of that tidal pull, Earth’s day would be 8 hours long, not 24. Which would cause much stronger winds and storms. And the tides would be lower. Which would impede the transition of  life from water to land. And that life would have to adapt to the windy, stormy short days. Would that life develop hearing, with all that wind? Would plants opt for low-surface-area needles instead of broad leaves? Assuming humans developed, how would early man tell time without a lunar cycle? Would this influence man’s scientific development? Comins asks and suggests answers to all of these questions. It’s exciting food for thought, and it made me want to go dream up worlds of my own.

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is over twenty years old now. I expect some of the science in it may be outdated (none that I actually noticed, but given the advances in planetary science since 1993, it seems likely). However, the logic the book employs is sound, and I still found it very stimulating. And in researching this post, I discovered two more recent books my Comins: What If the Earth Had Two Moons? written in 2011 and The Hazards of Space Travel: A Tourist’s Guide written in 2007. They seem similar in tenor and I expect to like them too.

Writing Prompt: Make up your own holiday

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Make up your own holiday” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

 

After the near miss, the year was three days longer. You’d think that not getting hit by a huge asteroid would be the most important outcome of The Scare. At first it was.

Only in the aftermath of something terrible do you see the little ripples and effects. Your birthday wasn’t your birthday. The fourth of July wasn’t The Fourth of July. And it wasn’t just the solar calendar. The asteroid pulled the moon farther out, which changed the lunar calendar. A lot of holidays run on the lunar calendar—Easter, Yom Kippur, Chinese New Year. Each group of people had to decide whether to switch to the new calendar or approximate the old one. Sects were formed, conflicts occurred. The surf was different. Some forms of life live like a clock with the tides, and random species we tend not to think about starting dying in droves. The days were a little longer too.

I was the first one to start it. I looked at the new calendar, I looked at the old calendar, and I said, I don’t care. I’m going to make up my own holiday. It happened roughly once a year, but when I said it would. It didn’t have to answer to anyone but me. I called it Time Dilation Day. We dressed up like Einstein. There were substances that influenced how a person perceives the passage of time. And we didn’t worry. It was a day outside the rigidities of calendars—solar, lunar, or whatever.

That was ten years ago. I’m afraid now that I started a cult. I don’t get to say when Time Dilation Day happens anymore. There’s another asteroid passing near the Earth in a couple of years. It’s not supposed to be close enough. But maybe I can change that. I don’t want it to hit, just another near miss would be swell. Once you control the passage of time, you don’t give it up.

Macro photography methods: early spring blooms

Here in Virginia, spring is just beginning, and most of the signs of it are small and close to the ground. This spring, I decided to zoom in on that small world. Macro photography can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. For my photos, I used a 100 mm macro lens, some extension tubes to cut the minimum focal distance, and a kick light for illumination. If you don’t have a macro lens, you can also get great macro images using any lens with reverse lens macro. I used reverse lens macro to capture the image below.

Resistors with reverse macro

While I waited for a warm day, I practiced indoors. Below is an image of a civil war token lit with a kick light. Kick lights are great– they are small and bright, and you can couple them to your smart phone to control the color of the light. I chose blue here, thinking it might complement the copper tones of the coin.

Token the size of a penny. Lit using a kick light set to blue light.

Token the size of a penny. Lit using a kick light set to blue light.

In another exercise, I went to the kitchen and took pictures next to the window. This way I could think about natural light without dealing with the more trying aspects of nature like wind and the lack of convenient countertops.

A bottle cap in macro.

A bottle cap in macro.

Finally I got a nice day. My first subject was a lenten rose. Viewed from above, these early bloomers look more like shrubs than flowers. Only from below do you see what pretty flowers they are. Which means getting underneath a shrub-height flower.

I used a kick light to pull up the deep shadows in the middle of the flower. A gorilla pod (a simple $10 mini-tripod/flexible grip sort of thing) let me get the kick light where I needed it. After some trial and error (and some laying in the dirt and cursing the glare on my view screen while simultaneously really appreciating the view screen since my older camera doesn’t have one), I got this image below. With the aperture set to f11, the depth of field is good. A few of the stamen are out of focus, and I wonder if another stop or two would have captured them. I didn’t notice them while I was taking the image. Still, pretty pleased with this image.

A lenten rose in macro, lit from beneath with a kick light.

A lenten rose in macro, lit from beneath with a kick light.

Next I found some scilla. These flowers are electrically blue, but they are dinky. Each flower below is about the size of a penny. They were growing in deep shadow, so again I used the kick light, this time more to achieve the contrast and the white balance I wanted.

Scilla flowers in macro.

Scilla flowers in macro.

Later, I found some moss growing on a brick. For this image, I used my extension tubes. They cut the light, but they allow great and affordable zoom. This was in full sun, so I didn’t need the kick light. I find this image slightly creepy, like those tendrils are going to grow into the pine cone and consume it. Here the aperture is f4– this was for effect rather than for exposure.

Moss and pine cone on a brick in macro.

Moss and pine cone on a brick in macro.

And finally, my favorite image of the day, a lovely purple crocus. This shot was just a matter of playing with angles and trying to stay in focus. Happy spring, everyone!

Crocus in macro.

Crocus in macro.

Pittsburgh’s transcendent Cathedral of Learning

There is a gothic skyscraper on the University of Pittsburgh campus called the Cathedral of Learning. It’s a beautiful building that does indeed resemble a vertically stretched cathedral. But inside are 29 nationality rooms that are even more astounding. Each one is themed around a different nationality (or culture, in the case of some like the African Heritage Classroom or the Israel Heritage Classroom). The oldest were dedicated in 1938, and the newest was dedicated in 2012. Each room is a highly detailed presentation of the culture of its country, down to the light switch panels, lights, and chair backs. Most are designed by architects of the country and decorated by artists of the country. And they’re all incredibly beautiful.

I visited the cathedral about a year ago now, but I’m still enthralled by it. I wrote about it then too. But recently I was editing my pictures from my visit, which gave me an excuse to post about it again. Check out the photos below, or the hundred full-res images I posted as creative commons works on Flickr.

The Ukrainian Classroom, dedicated in 1990.

The Ukrainian Classroom, dedicated in 1990.

The Turkish Classroom, dedicated in 2012.

The Turkish Classroom, dedicated in 2012.

The Israel Heritage Classroom, dedicated in 1987.

The Israel Heritage Classroom, dedicated in 1987.

The Greek Classroom, dedicated in 1941.

The Greek Classroom, dedicated in 1941.

The Chinese Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Chinese Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Swedish Classroom, dedicated in 1938.

The Swedish Classroom, dedicated in 1938.

The Lithuanian Classroom, dedicated in 1940.

The Lithuanian Classroom, dedicated in 1940.

A detail from the Irish Classroom, dedicated in 1957.

A detail from the Irish Classroom, dedicated in 1957.

A detail from the Polish classroom, dedicated in 1940.

The tempura painted ceiling in the Polish classroom, dedicated in 1940. 

The Hungarian Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Hungarian Classroom door, dedicated in 1939.

The Czechoslovak Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The Czechoslovak Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

A detail from the Yugoslav Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

The ceiling in the Yugoslav Classroom, dedicated in 1939.

Merging photographs

Lately I’ve been improving my Photoshop skills with courses from Lynda.com. If you want to learn a design program, I strongly recommend them. In a year, I’ve learned so much about Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Lightroom, JavaScript, CSS, photography, and more. In Photoshop alone, I learned way more than I figured out in 15 years of experimentation.

With my new learning, I’ve been able to breathe new life into old photos. Over the past several years, I took numerous sets of photos that I intended to turn into panoramas and HDRs, but then I could never get them to look right. With newfound skills come newfound confidence. Check out these beautiful images!

 

moab-composite-302

American Southwest near Moab, Utah at sunset. Assembled from 40 24-megapixel images captured with a Sony Alpha 100. When it was assembling, it tied up over 100 gigs of space. This version is 1500×557 pixels; the full size is 19,000 x 7,000!

moab-composite-302-zoom-detail

Detail from above photo, center-left at horizon.

SONY DSC

Mount Saint Helen’s in Washington state. Assembled from 6 24-megapixel images from a Sony Alpha 100.

SONY DSC

Detail from above photo, center left.

SONY DSC

Waterfall in Central Virginia along the Blue Ridge Parkway. High dynamic range image assembled from five slow-exposures. Smart sharpen and high pass filters to add sharpness and clarity.

SONY DSC

Rainforest in Olympic National Park. Before assembly, I reduced noise and applied lens corrections. High dynamic range image assembled from five exposures. Smart sharpen and high pass filters to add sharpness and clarity.

 

 

 

Writing prompt: Abduct an extraterrestrial

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Abduct an extraterrestrial” (This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts. March 20th is Extraterrestrial Abductions Day, and after a member of our writing group misinterpreted this as humans abducting ETs, we went with that. It seemed more interesting.)

 

The light from underground was reddish. The instruments confirmed that it extended into the infrared.

“They’re down there,” Mason hissed. “The aliens!”

For the historical reader, I should explain that the presence of aliens wasn’t the novelty here, but the collection of this particular species for the St. Louis Zoo. At this point, we hadn’t understood that the Iotans travelled along subharmonic strings. We only knew at this point that they couldn’t seem to escape from caves or other underground places once they got there. We’d managed to capture two of them in this trap we’d set. A pity, it took at least three to breed.

“I can see that,” I told Mason. He was really more of a technician than an exobiologist. For him, the victory was that his trap had worked. I was an exobiologist. I needed to figure out how to get them to the zoo without them de-materializing—an annoying habit. Further, I had to figure out what Iotans ate and breathed and whether their excretions would dissolve the typical metal enclosures.

The Iotans realized now their predicament. The two of them wailed high and frankly unpleasantly. We didn’t know if they had language or if they could travel as they did simply as part of their unusual biology. I wish now that we’d known what a headache this pair would be for us. After we accidentally killed the Iotans, tough times came in the exobiologist community. I got sent to work at the facility on Mars—a humiliation. But that’s a different story.

The red light flashed white and the wailing squealed higher then abruptly stopped. There were no more signs on the instruments, no more sounds, no more anything. We cautiously crept forward. The cavern was twice as big as it had been and we saw no Iotans anywhere.

“Where are they?” Mason asked.

“How should I know?” I exploded. We were exhausted when we reached the surface, and I noted the failure in my records.

Fun Science: Two metals in contact do fun stuff

Have you ever made lasagna, and later discovered black spots or holes on the tin foil you used to cover it? Those spots are due to bimetallic or galvanic corrosion. Galvanic corrosion is an electrochemical process that occurs when two different metals contact through an electrolyte. Any two metals or alloys can experience galvanic corrosion, but pairs with dissimilar potentials will experience more. The potential of a metal is an inherent property of that metal, like density or hardness. Galvanic corrosion can be a very destructive force, or it can be exploited to make electrical current in a battery. In the case of the lasagna, the lasagna functions as the electrolyte, the pan as one metal, and the tin foil as the second metal.

How to make a simple battery at home

The first battery was invented in 1800 by Alessandro Volta. It was called the voltaic pile, and it was composed of a stack of zinc and copper disks.

A voltaic pile, the earliest kind of battery. Voltaic piles were used to discover many elements and to study electricity (credit: wikimedia commons)

If you have coins, you can make a battery. US pennies are zinc coated with pure copper and US nickels are 75% copper.

Battery 1 (weak, but easy): You can make a weak battery by stacking pennies alternated with nickels. Just separate the coins with paper towels soaked in vinegar, which will serve as the electrolyte. Here’s a great summary of some experiments you can do with this system. If you have a multimeter, you can measure the voltage of your system; the more alternating sets of coins, the higher the voltage. This battery won’t be powerful enough to light an LED, but if you keep it wet for a few days, you will be able to see the effects of the corrosion on the coins.

Battery 2 (strong, but more work): If you’re more ambitious, you can sand the copper off one side of the pennies, and create a battery from just pennies. A few pennies like this can easily light LEDs.The video below shows how to make battery 2.

Battery 2 is much more powerful because the metals in battery 2 (the zinc of the penny’s core and the copper of the penny’s surface) have a higher difference in potential than those in battery 1 (the 75% copper of the 5 cent coin and the pure copper of the penny surface). The farther apart two substances are on the galvanic series, the more voltage there will be.

Galvanic corrosion and the Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty has an iron skeleton covered by a thin layer of copper. It was built with insulators between the copper and iron to prevent corrosion, but these insulators broke down. The Statue of Liberty was extensively renovated in the 1980s to repair damage from this corrosion.

Galvanic corrosion occurs in a lot of systems. If you use washers that are a different kind of metal than your screw, galvanic corrosion will occur. Galvanic corrosion can get even trickier: alloys that contain more than one kind of metal are composed of crystal grains that may vary slightly in composition. Galvanic corrosion can occur in an alloy between grain boundaries!

The bolts are a different kind of stainless steel, which has led to corrosion (credit: wikimedia commons)

Fortunately, we have methods for combatting corrosion. Corrosion only eats away at the lower potential metal. So engineers often design less critical pieces out of lower potential metals, so that they are sacrificial. Galvanic and other kinds of corrosion are major topics of research, relevant to boat construction, bridges, high temperature processing, and more. And thanks to galvanic corrosion, you can power a light with just pennies.